“No matter who makes it to the mountaintop, we will come together and support them!” Perez thundered. “That’s what we are focused on, folks — uniting the party and building the best possible team to take on Donald Trump!”
After a beat, Perez’s message elicited a roar of approval across Wells Fargo Arena. But it came after more than a dozen candidates had spent hours on a rainy Friday trying to project to Iowa voters, yet again, that it was their campaign that had the grass-roots energy and momentum to not just beat Trump, but win the still-packed primary first.
They had pulled out all the stops, bringing signs that lit up, giant cardboard cutouts, noisemakers, and no fewer than four marching bands to help make their case — and that was before dinner even began.
Appearing overnight Thursday, candidate signs blanketed just about every strip of grass surrounding the arena. After dawn Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign erected a 25-foot inflatable replica of Bailey, the Massachusetts senator’s golden retriever, about a block from the venue. Two oversize “pennies” hung from Bailey’s collar to represent Warren’s proposed two-cent wealth tax.
A little farther away, more than 2,300 people gathered for a predinner rally to hype South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who appeared with singer-songwriter Ben Harper. While many attendees waved placards featuring Iowa counties, a good number also waved signs advertising that they had come from as far away as California, Colorado or North Carolina.
Buttigieg wasn’t the only candidate to invite a musical guest to help energize his supporters. Across the Des Moines River, businessman Andrew Yang gathered his supporters for “Yangapalooza,” a two-hour rally that featured music from Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. Around 300 voters joined the celebration under a steady rain.
“I am glad the weather is bad, because it shows what you are made of!” Yang said, using a four-letter expletive.
For Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the stakes felt especially high. Earlier in the day, news had emerged that Harris was laying off more than a dozen New Hampshire field organizers and shuttering all but one of her campaign offices in the Granite State, essentially betting all her hopes on a strong showing in the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.
There was no explicit mention of those struggles as Harris appeared at her own predinner rally with a raucous step team and drum line, the same group that had accompanied her into the Polk County Steak Fry in September.
“We are knee-deep in Iowa!” Harris told hundreds of supporters packed into a ballroom. Nearby, an animal-rights activist dressed as a cow couldn’t help but dance to the beat of Harris’s drum line. “We are not playing around!” Harris declared. “We are here!”
As Harris reassured her supporters, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) rallied a vocal crowd of more than 1,500 who had gathered to join him in a short march in downtown Des Moines.
Weeks after a heart attack seemed like it might derail his candidacy, Sanders remains in a competitive position in Iowa and other states. No moment embodied that resilience more than the announcement he made to the enthusiastic crowd: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) would be joining him in Iowa next week for rallies in support of the Green New Deal.
Shortly before the dinner officially started, former vice president Joe Biden gave an unusually short speech, and as people filed out, they were greeted by staffers clutching handfuls of extra tickets for the dinner. They weren’t the only campaign in this situation; a Democratic activist said that earlier in the week he had been called by three campaigns with tickets to give away.
The campaigns’ eagerness to fill seats grew clearer as the lights dimmed and the dinner started. The atmosphere of the event — part-plated dinner, part-sporting event, almost all theater — was electric, as the candidates marched one-by-one down a long catwalk toward clouds of smoke that surrounded the stage.
In true Iowa tradition, each candidate tried to outdo the others in generating excitement and visual spectacle, but some had more success than others.
“Firefighters for Biden” filled a specially decked-out suite, but as the former vice president addressed the dinner, hundreds of empty seats remained in six upper-level sections reserved by the campaign. Outside those sections sat boxes of unused inflatable noisemakers branded with one of Biden’s signature phrases, “Beat him like a drum.”
When the lights dimmed, Buttigieg’s supporters, who filled nearly a quarter of the arena, waved lights that blinked in sync. Warren’s campaign also filled several sections, with supporters sporting liberty-green shirts and noisemakers. At the apex of her speech, they unfurled an enormous “Win With Warren” banner that draped over three tiers of the arena.
Throughout the evening, the shadow and promise of former president Barack Obama hung in the air. At the same event in 2007, Obama had a breakout moment that gave his underdog campaign a pivotal boost, and it was clear Friday night that several candidates were seeking the same.
Before the dinner, Harris recalled canvassing with Obama in 2007 and spoke of Iowa’s significance to his campaign.
Buttigieg, too, invoked Obama. “The first time I came to this state was as a volunteer to knock on doors for a presidential candidate — a young man with a funny name,” Buttigieg said. “And we knew the stakes were high then. The stakes are colossal now.”
But mostly, the candidates focused their speeches on President Trump.
“We must defeat the most dangerous president in our history,” Sanders said.
But both he and Warren sought to differentiate themselves from the more centrist candidates. “Do we continue the status quo politics which has enabled the wealthiest people in our country, the largest corporations and their lobbyists, to have extraordinary influence?” Sanders asked.
An audience member shouted, “No!” Sanders responded, “No is the right answer.”
Warren, without naming anyone, warned that nominating a candidate promising “business as usual” after Trump would result in a Democratic loss.
“Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you to dream small and give up early is not going to lead our party to victory,” Warren said. “We win when we offer solutions big enough to touch the problems that are in people’s lives. Fear and complacency does not win elections — hope and courage wins elections.”
Less than two hours before he was set to attend, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke made a surprise announcement that he was dropping out of the presidential race. As the news spread, many of his supporters in Des Moines — some of whom had braved the chilly, rainy morning to plant “Beto” signs and to chant on street corners — appeared shocked and tearful.
Inside the arena, it looked as if all of O’Rourke’s campaign staff and volunteers had vanished. Most of the 1,000 seats his campaign had bought sat empty, as did a check-in table. Boxes of chant instructions — including “I-O-W-A, Beto’s going all the way” — were never passed out. Ads promoting his candidacy appeared on television screens near the concession stands.
Several candidates and other speakers acknowledged his exit, sometimes mispronouncing his first name.
“Can we get a round of applause for Beto O’Rourke?” Perez asked as the dinner was underway. “He wears his passion on his sleeve. Thank you, Beto, for stepping up.”
A hearty applause broke out. O’Rourke was not there to hear it.
Chelsea Janes, Dave Weigel, Holly Bailey, Dan Balz and Jenna Johson contributed to this report.